Tangible Content

A recent post from Tongs (“On why I still go to record stores”) got me thinking about the difference between CDs and books. Why was it (relatively) easy for me to make the switch to buying music in digital form, while I’m still resisting e-books? The main difference, I think, is that while I can pick up a CD and handle it – examine the track listing on the back, the art on the cover, and, once I’ve bought it, the lyrics and pictures and acknowledgements in the jacket – I still can’t get to the actual content without putting it in a CD player (or now, in the computer). Whereas with a book, even before I’ve bought it, I can open it, skim the inside flap copy, read the first page, even read the last page; books, in their traditional paper form, are accessible.

Initially, I did have a hard time making the switch to the mp3 format, as opposed to buying CDs and having the tangible objects. However, there are ways around this: first of all, it is easy – if time-consuming – to upload an entire music collection from CDs to an iTunes library. It works in reverse as well: when I buy music online, I can always burn it to a blank CD. Now, too, I can usually look up the all-important lyrics on the internet, instead of hoping to find them in the jacket (it was always disappointing when they weren’t there). And I’ll readily admit that it is much, much easier to carry all my music around in my iPod than it is to lug around a Discman and three zippered volumes of CDs. Finally, if it’s a band I’m really attached to, I can always get the CD in a record store, and sometimes still do.

Why then am I still willing to carry six books with me on five-day trips? Well, for one, there’s no free and easy way to “upload” my entire library to a Kindle or any other kind of e-reader. It’s true that e-reader devices have dropped drastically in price since they first appeared on the market, as well all knew they would, and that their features continue to improve. However, the fact that if I bought an e-reader, and then wanted to re-read a book I already owned in paper form, I’d need to buy it again – that really inspires some resistance. Furthermore, there’s the argument for tangibility, for two reasons: one is the oft-cited sentimental one – many people still love the smell and feel of “real” books. The other is that, as we saw with the Orwell debacle, the books you “own” on the Kindle can still disappear. (Amazon would have a much harder time sneaking into houses and apartments and “recalling” unauthorized copies of paper books they’d sold.)

That said, I am glad that e-readers exist, that people are buying them and using them and maybe even reading them more than they used to. For those with extra disposable income – and the Kindle, at first, was most popular with an older sector of the population, those with cash, leisure time, and at least a little tech savvy – the Kindle, Sony eReader, Nook, etc. is a great device. (And those are just the dedicated reading devices – the iPad, obviously, can also serve as an e-reader, but it’s not a single-purpose device by a long shot.)

As for me, for now I’m happy with a (mostly) digital music collection and a library full of paper books. Until book digitization becomes a lot quicker and easier than this, I’ll continue to read from my “dead tree” collection (though, I ought to point out, I acquire the majority of my books used, which is (A) a form of recycling, and (B) less expensive than buying new – in a bookstore or an e-bookstore).

And of course there are always libraries.

What I’m reading: Little Bird of Heaven, Joyce Carol Oates
What I’m listening to: Funeral and The Suburbs, Arcade Fire; High Fidelity soundtrack; Moon Safari, Air

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